A number of years ago I thought to keep an exchange about gay marriage between two conservatives. Written for National Review in 2001 Stanley Kurtz and Johnathan Rauch had a reasoned argument for and against which struck me at the time as helpful because it was so clear and devoid of name-calling.
Kurtz argued inter alia against the legalization of gay marriage in any state and for the Federal Marriage Amendment which would define marriage throughout the land as a union between one man and one woman. Rauch, a gay conservative , argued that conservatives ought to support state-sanctioned gay marriage so that federalism could work out whatever kinks might be in the cultural and the legal system. Rereading this conversation has been fascinating given the Supreme Court decision forcing gay marriage on the whole country.
For instance, Rauch writes:
Kurtz is certainly right that the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA], which says that no state need recognize any other’s same-sex marriage, will be challenged in the courts. Everything is challenged in the courts. I’m confident that the courts will uphold the act; I just can’t see this or any foreseeable Supreme Court imposing gay marriage nationally by fiat. But, of course, there’s no telling what courts may do. The answer is obvious: write DOMA into the Constitution. An amendment saying, ‘Nothing in this Constitution shall require any state to recognize as a marriage any union but that of one man and one woman,’ does the trick. End of problem.
Again Kurtz asserts that federal judges will high-handedly impose one state’s same-sex marriages on all the others. Again I say that there is — just as he says — plenty of room in the law for determined judges to decide this legal issue either way, but that any sane Supreme Court will be determined not to impose same-sex marriage on an unwilling nation.
And fourteen years later… FOURTEEN…, what Mr. Rauch just couldn’t see happening did happen. Later in the same piece Rauch writes in response to Kurtz’s argument that DOMA is not good enough and that Federal Marriage Amendment needs to be considered. Rauch writes that if DOMA won’t suffice:
 What’s the alternative? National culture war. Support for gay marriage, now at 35 percent, is likely to grow over time, and the argument is passionate. Kurtz’s insistence on ‘all or nothing’ risks turning same-sex marriage into the next abortion issue, in which the stakes are so high — national imposition of gay marriage versus national abolition — that extremism runs riot on both sides. And what if Kurtz et al. gamble on all-or-nothing and lose? What if they refuse to try federalism and they fail to pass their constitutional ban and the courts actually do rule that all states must recognize one state’s same-sex marriages? Then their rejection of federalism will have brought about exactly the nightmare they feared. If that happens, don’t blame us homosexuals for polarizing the argument and ‘ramming homosexual marriage down the country’s throat.’
The votes for the Federal Marriage Amendment were never there, and so it didn’t go very far. And we got the national culture war, but we got it precisely because Kurtz understood reality. The moment gay marriage is accepted in one state, it will be imposed on every other. It was just a matter of time. What Mr. Rauch didn’t and still doesn’t understand is that the culture war was inevitable not because of those against redefining marriage but because those on Mr. Rauch’s side wanted it. If Mr. Rauch doubts that, consider asking Mr. Eich of Mozilla (a situation, I should mention, which Mr. Rauch denounced) or the owner of the pizza shop in Indiana or virtually anyone anywhere in the U.S. who dares to question same-sex marriage. There is a war.
Those of us on the losing side of this war are convinced that homosexuals have polarized the argument because anyone who disagrees with them are called haters and bigots. Rauch might argue that we ought not blame the mainstream gay community for this, but this attitude is not limited to a few hotheads. Polarization is here and widespread. So we 37% of the country actually do feel like Rauch has rammed “homosexual marriage down the country’s throat.”
Along with federalism, Kurtz and Rauch also discussed the nature of marriage. Kurtz argued that marriage must be limited to a man and a woman because of the unique social structure linking a man to a woman and the children they have together. Says Kurtz, “A wedding embodies and reinforces already existing public sentiments about a man’s responsibilities to a woman; it cannot create such sentiments out of thin air.” Kurtz is exactly right to continue by noting that this social construct is already in danger, and has been for a while. He writes,
Supporters of gay marriage keep telling us that the sky will not fall. What they do not understand is that, when it comes to marriage, the sky has already fallen. It is lying about our feet, and considerable effort will be required even to hoist it back a few yards over our heads. The trouble with gay marriage is that it forecloses that possibility.
I couldn’t agree with him more. The heterosexual community killed marriage decades ago with no-fault divorce, contraception, rampant pornography and with a media culture that within a short time (24 years) went from “Father Knows Best” to “Married with Children.” The results, even before Friday’s decision, have been a dizzying decline in stability for families. Kurtz’ points about marriage and family are played out in stark statistics where children suffer. More than half of all births in the U.S. happen out of wedlock. Approximately one in three children in the U.S. (that’s 24 million kids) live in a home without their biological father. If one believes that children have a right to their father and mother, and Catholics must, then these rights have been trampled and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. Even if heterosexuals do pursue marriage these days, children are considered a choice – sometimes a mistake – which men can blame on the woman. No fault divorce has made it exceedingly easy to end the relationship for any or no reason. Whereas in the past a man would be ostracized for abandoning a woman with children, today that man is just a part of the new normal.
It is not just children who suffer of course, it is women too. According to sociologists who’ve studied the issue, women endure a 73% reduction in standard of living after divorce whereas men enjoy a 42% increase. “So changing social attitudes toward homosexuality,” says Kurtz “cannot help but have a profound effect upon the social and moral significance of sexuality itself.”
Rauch doesn’t buy Kurtz’ argument. “If you told [married people] that marriage is fundamentally about (in Kurtz’s words) ‘a man’s responsibilities to a woman,’ rather than a person’s responsibilities to a person, they’d look at you funny,” says Rauch. That’s probably true, but then that’s Kurtz’ whole point. Heterosexuals don’t understand what marriage is anymore, and so allowing gays to marry is going to make it next to impossible to try to bring back that meaning any time soon.
Rauch’s other argument for gay marriage is that marriage will “domesticate” what have been otherwise promiscuous gay relationships. By legalizing marriage for gays, argues Rauch, the nation will provide gays with a reason to be monogamous, to reject the culture of hook-ups which has been so much a part of it for so long. The national debate about marriage would also help heterosexual marriage, so that straight couples come to appreciate the importance of family values.
To this Kurtz makes some important points.
Reading Rauch, one would never know that the gay community has been, and still is, deeply divided on the subject of marriage. Initially, the drive for gay marriage provoked intense debate among gays, with many arguing that it was a terrible mistake to join so oppressive an institution as marriage. That argument wasn’t so much ‘won’ as it was set aside. In pursuit of social acceptance, gays now give near universal assent to the idea that they ought to have the right to marry one another, yet gays are still deeply divided about whether they ought to marry or, if so, whether they ought to conform to traditional notions of what marriage means. The truth is, Rauch’s conservative argument for gay marriage puts him on the far end of the spectrum in this debate, and Rauch has done a poor job of either acknowledging or coming to terms with the existence of diverse views on the marriage question within the gay community itself.
Rauch has written since the Supreme Court decision that he has been pleasantly surprised by how many gays have flocked to courthouses to get married. He sees this as a vindication of his position contra Kurtz that the gay community wants marriage. But of course gay marriage even in California is only a handful of years old. While Rauch is a gay man who honors marriage and wants it himself, he might be in the minority in his community. The current rush of gays to marriage means nothing so far, and I suspect marriage in that community will degenerate as it has elsewhere. The evidence for my suspicion is ubiquitous.
Dan Savage, that titan of gay activism and anti-Christian hate, has been totally clear that sexual monogamy is not natural and so ought not be considered constitutive of a “socially monogamous” relationship. Kurtz points in his piece to Michael Bronski, a gay writer and activist, who hopes that gay marriage will “provoke an end to monogamy and the traditional family. Bronski supports gay marriage, if with limited enthusiasm, because he sees it as a means to that end.” E.J. Graff, Kurtz goes on, is another gay marriage advocate who hopes the new definition “will therefore bring about a legal structure and a social ethos that presume androgyny.” Kurtz summarizing Graff fourteen years ago is scarily prescient.
Not only has the Supreme Court done exactly what Rauch said he couldn’t imagine would happen, but now androgyny, getting past genderism, transsexuality, ubersexuality is all the rage. For your profile, Facebook offers some 58 different genders from which to choose. Caitlyn Jenner. Androgyny is the next great horizon in civil rights. Marriage and getting a right to it is just a means to an end for a portion of the gay community. That Rauch didn’t and perhaps still doesn’t see it this way is great for him, but Kurtz is right that Rauch’s views in 2001 were representative of only one part of his community, and that is still true today.
In a recent piece for Time Magazine Rauch gives himself a “scorecard” about his predictions about gay marriage. It’s an interesting read. He is an easy grader. Rauch does admit that he was wrong about three things, right about three others, and he offers three more predictions which will just have to be played out over time. Given his fortune-telling failures in his 2001 debate with Kurtz I have my doubts about his perspicacity.
In one of his “wait and see” points he insists that gay marriage won’t lead to polygamy. He is right that there are differences between gay marriage and polygamy. But he misses the way they are the same, and he is again astonishingly wrong when he writes that “the case for gay marriage is the case against polygamy, and the public will be smart enough to understand the difference.”
Though wrong, Rauch’s understanding of gay marriage was and is more nuanced, more erudite, more refined than the general public’s. But his understanding doesn’t matter. The popular argument for gay marriage, the one that is repeated ad naseum by every middle-school teen and undergrad activist has been one of sexual self-fulfillment and radical individualism. The case for gay marriage in the hearts and minds of the public was that people should be able to love whom they want to love and that gay marriage does nothing to harm heterosexual marriages.
The slope has been greased. The public case will be that if it’s okay for two men to love each other, why not three? And, if it doesn’t harm my marriage, then why not let them? In the minds of the public in which Rauch places so much confidence, there is no difference in principle between the new understanding of marriage and polygamy. None.
I’d like to end with Kurtz’ last words in the debate fourteen years ago:
The trouble with the rights-based side of Rauch’s argument is that it cannot help but lead to the dissolution of marriage and its replacement by an infinitely flexible series of relationship contracts between persons of any number or gender. Be assured that groups of three, four, and more will come before the public and the courts — with arguments that equal Rauch’s in passion — demanding recognition for their ‘equal right’ to a loving collective marriage. But as I showed in my piece in Commentary, the end result of such group marriages will be a serious rise in marital instability, and chaos for the children of these multiple households….
Any argument Rauch might choose to make against legal polygamy or group marriage (and perhaps even incest as well) will necessarily fall every bit as far outside of what he now defines as liberalism as my own arguments against gay marriage. And be assured, this is where we are headed. With the advent of gay marriage — already mandated in Vermont on right-based grounds (rather than on Rauch’s ‘conservative’ grounds) — we face legalized polygamy, group marriage, and the eventual legal abolition of marriage itself and its replacement by an infinitely flexible contractual system.
Kurtz will be right again, and I suspect he will be so in the near future as Churches start to look into getting out of the civil marriage game and let states issue what will be called marriage licenses but which will really just be contracts.
Again, Kurtz was and is right that marriage has been broken for a long time, and it is not the gay community’s fault. It is the heterosexual community that, since the sexual revolution, has distorted the meaning of human sexuality to be whatever we want it to be. The tragedy now is that we will not be getting that important view back, not any time soon. In the meantime, children will continue to suffer from the autonomous whims of the adults who should care for them most.
See Rauch’s latest arguments against polygamy here. Charles C. Cooke offers some great commentary in response.
Sarah Burrows over at the Federalist argues that polyamory is naturally the next step for our nation and that her libertarian views demand it.
Mark Oppenheimer of Time argues that churches ought to lose their tax exempt status, and that this is long overdue. You know, sometimes slippery slope arguments ought to be better respected than they usually are.